Pioneer Estonian School Memories

Mrs. John M. Tipman

Students and a teacher in front of Estonian School near Gilby, Alberta in the 1940s. The Estonian School, in the Municipal District of Lacombe, came into existence because of the need of the children of the majority of the Estonian-speaking pioneers who had settled by the Medicine River. Their older children were already nearing their teens and had had no schooling whatever, as there had been no school close by. So, in order to have their children educated and learn the language of Canada, that is, English, a school had to be built. A suitable spot was selected in the middle of the community and a school was built in 1910. It was an oblong frame building of lumber, painted blue-gray on the inside and the outside. The school room area was on the east side, lengthwise, and the three anterooms, and entrance door were on the west side of the building. The outside door led into the central anteroom and the girls' cloakroom was on the left of this and the boys' cloakroom on the right. But, alas! The boys' cloakroom became the bed-sitting room of the teachers for the first few years. The pioneer homes were too small to provide a "room" suitable for the teacher. He slept and lived at the school and had his meals at the home of a nearby farmer, Mr. Stenvig.

Maybe it is not amiss, at this point, to mention that an additional room was added to the north end of the building in 1920 to form a two-roomed school. Here grades seven to ten were taught for a few years. Later these higher-grade children were taken by school van to Eckville High School.

The school room was furnished by wooden homemade double desks; the desk tops were painted black and the seats yellow. The desktops contained two inkwells - one for each pupil; and below it was a compartment for books. The first heater was a long barrel-like affair; laid lengthwise on the floor and capable of burning three-foot-long spruce logs. Later on an upright school furnace, with a round metal shield, was provided for the school. A one-pail water fountain, with a push-button tap, provided drinking water. This was a delight to us children. Everyone, whether thirsty or not, wanted to push the button and drink the spurting water. The blackboards were just that - boards painted black, with a trough for chalk.

Students at the Estonian school during recess in 1951. The majority of the children who started their schooling here were children of the Estonian pioneers - hence the name, "Estonian School". Those attending were the Koots, the Kinnas, the Kingseps, the Langers, the Matteus's, (later spelled Matthews), the Moros, the Moos's, the Postis, the Pihoojas, and Raabis's - all of Estonian lineage. There were two families of Norwegians, the Stenvigs and the Gilbertsons; one family of English, the Dekkers; and also one family of Finns, the Hills.

The first couple of years there was school only during the four summer months, due to the scarcity of qualified teachers. Only University students were available as teachers during the summer months. Later some of the University students taught for six months, and finally, as time passed on, the full ten-month school year was established.

The first children who arrived at the Estonian School were bare-foot boys and girls, fresh for their new adventure in life. It was a wonderful adventure as new friendships were formed where no companions had been available before. It did not matter that they couldn't speak with each other; they could hold hands and run and point to a flower, grass or tree, and each would say it in their own language, then each would repeat the other's word and laugh. What a wonderful feeling, just to have someone of another language to share his feelings with you!

It was said that the teachers were hard to get for a pioneer school where the children did not know a word of English. Who would like to grapple with the extra problem of the language barrier in teaching? But the first teacher's we did get to teach the Estonian school were wonderful. They were resourceful, patient, and had a sense of humor and were very understanding of us children.

For our first day of school we carried only our "lard pail" lunch bucket, a slate, and a slate pencil. The teacher was a tall young man, wearing a "suit" and the whitest of white shirts, topped with a red colored tie. His hair was parted on one side and neatly combed. His outward appearance had an electrifying effect on every boy because from that day forward they became conscious that they, too, had hair. Strenuous efforts were made by them to comb their unruly locks into place just like the teacher's, and to be clean like him. To us girls he was from a different world and we wondered if we would ever be part of this outside world.

"School days, school days, the golden rule days, taught to the tune of a hickory stick." It seemed that this rule did not apply in this early Estonian school. There was only one rule: "Learn English during school hours and on the play ground." We left the room quietly, without asking permission, if nature requested, but hurried back so as to miss nothing. Thirst was quenched at the fountain. We lacked the words for asking permission. None of the children ever abused their freedom and no hickory stick made its appearance except as a "pointer" for words or numbers. The days for us were "Golden".

Now to the actual teaching and learning. Believe it or not, our very first textbook was the T. Eaton Catalogue, and a very good textbook it was for that purpose. It had words and pictures of people, clothes, rooms with furniture, curtains, dishes, clocks, horses, harness, sleighs and wagons, houses, barns, and paints. All words and pictures were eagerly absorbed by our receptive minds and repetition etched it permanently there. The whole school repeated each word in unison and then singly. Finally back to our seats to draw on our slates the object and to write the correctly spelled word beside it. The slates were perfect for such work as errors could easily be corrected. Our vocabulary grew by leaps and bounds - it was thrilling to know how many words we learned in a day!

The sentence-building came later and this was more difficult. Our teacher made us act out our sentences. For example, the child would go and sit on a chair and say "I am sitting on a chair." This acting out each sentence was fun. If some of the children didn't understand the English word, for example "open", the teacher asked for the Estonian word for it. He repeated the word "lahti" after the pupil. His accent often made us laugh and he laughed with us, too. Thus a kinship of understanding and mutual respect grew between teacher and pupil. After sentence building we progressed to the Alexander Readers and then we were on our way!

To further expand our vocabulary the early teachers took the whole school on excursions to the woods, meadows and lakesides. Here we learned to recognize the different types of trees and learn their names. The meadows provided a profusion of wild flowers of every shape, size and color and each with a pretty name. By the lakeside the wild birds were bountiful. We found ducks, geese, killdeers, yellow-headed woodpeckers, red winged blackbirds, robins, snipes, and hawks. The schoolroom possessed a chart, in beautiful colors, of the common wild birds of Alberta. This chart was scrutinized thoroughly after each field trip and the book of wild flowers was examined with care. These field trips taught us not only the names of things we saw, but also a deep respect for plant and animal life.

During the first years our teachers were young men. Then we had a "Lady Teacher". This was a surprise and honor to us. We girls admired her to no end. We aspired to owning clothes like hers - beautiful blouses and skirts with pleats that opened so beautifully as she walked. And her hair styles were beautiful, too. When she taught us girls "hair care" and presented each one of us with a length of red ribbon for our hair we felt we had risen in self respect. Last, but not least, we aspired to have knowledge like hers. But the boys went one step further than us girls, and this irked us because we hadn't thought of it before. They washed their bare feet at the pump before coming into class. We asked the boys why they did this. The reply was, "No one goes before a lady with dusty feel." Believe it or not, we girls were not to be outdone by the boys. We asked the boys to pump water so we, too, could wash our faces and bare feet before we entered the schoolroom. There were no towels in the school in those days, so all of us boys and girls dried our wet feet by standing on a poplar log like birds in a row, and let the wind do the work. Cold water and wind caused chapping of the hands and feet, but this condition was easily remedied by applying "sweet sour cream" sparingly on our sores every evening. This treatment stung, but who cared? Fresh unsalted butter rubbed on our hands also kept them soft. These beauty remedies were always kept handy by our mothers.

The winter months brought the added problem of something hot for lunch. The teacher solved the problem of hot drink by providing hot water and the children were to bring their "tea". Bought tea was hard to get but the teacher was surprised to learn how many different native teas we had. There was chamomile and caraway tea made from dried wild seeds of these plants; mint tea, made from dried wild mint leaves; and raspberry tea made from the wild raspberry plant. All of these teas were very tasty, but caraway became the favorite.

One of the teachers taught us to play checkers during the cold weather, as blackboard games used up too much chalk. Soon the classroom boasted of handmade checkerboards of stiff brown building paper, marked by the right colored squares-the checker men were colored stiff paper squares, or buttons. This game was really enjoyed by older and younger children alike. After a sitting game like this there followed a fast game of "Pussy Wants a Corner", with the schoolroom windows open. Or if there was untrodden snow outside, a fast game of "Fox and Geese" was played.

The teachers not only followed the school curriculum but aroused our interest in other fields, such as love of classical literature during our story hours; interest in travel, by telling about their travels, or stories about countries they read about. They taught us patriotic, Christmas, Easter, and Folk songs to foster our love of singing. We learned how the debate system was used in Parliament, and we often debated on topics familiar to us. Group games in which all participated taught us the importance of fair play, and honor was the aim.

Thus, in six years these Estonian school children had learned to speak English, had covered their eight years of schooling, and were ready to write grade VIII examinations in Red Deer. Some left school without obtaining a diploma, but from this first crop of pioneer children emerged teachers, storekeepers, and flour and lumber millers. Even a baker and a lady doctor had received a partial year's training in the Estonian school.

Alberta's Estonian Heritage